Iain (M) Banks and grief for those we’ve never met.

You know, Iain Banks died the other day. As with most people reading this, I never met the guy. As with many people who love his books, though, I feel deeply sad that the mind that created them is gone. It’s strange and hard to believe, in that all too familiar way of death.

(Aside: I really wish people would quit dying so that I wouldn’t find myself writing about this kind of thing all the time. If you’re alive and reading this: do me a favour and stay that way? I mean, even if I don’t like you all that much I’d almost certainly rather you just stopped being a douchebag than kicked it. Let’s all just stay alive. It’ll be great. And if it’s not great.. well, then we can go back to the way things are now, no hard feelings.)

Engaging with being affected by the death of people you don’t actually know is strange, at best. When someone who you know and love dies.. it’s horrible. Nauseatingly, achingly, violently horrible. One of the few things you have to cling on to is the rituals we create around death- the gathering together of loved ones, the funeral, the community. These places we create where we can fall apart.

That space where we grieve those we love is essential. If I used words like ‘sacred’, I’d use it here. It’s not a place to intrude upon. I do not want to intrude there.

At the same time, though? This culture of ours is one where we will never meet many of the people who influence us. It’s one where we can communicate to many more people than we can communicate with. And in a few cases, we can invite many thousands of people into our imaginations. Into our minds.

It’s never complete. It’s never like knowing or loving a person. But in a genuine way, creating stories is always sharing a part of who you are. If you’re exceptionally good at it? It can feel like tasting, in a small way, the flavour of a person’s mind. Not of what they are like, but of what it must be like to be them. Experiencing, in a way that you never could on your own. That wonderful, familiar, utterly alien sense of anotherness.

You don’t find out what a person is like. But you do- maybe, a little- get a sense of what it might be like to be them, from the inside.

After Banks’s death, Brendan O’Neill wrote an article decrying any expressions of grief from members of the public as “death watching”, and accusing those who speak of their impending mortality of being nothing more than “trendy”. O’Neill- who, by the way, seems to make his living as a contrarian- sees any way of dying that is not purely private as fashionable nonsense. And mourning for anyone outside your private circles? “Glory-seeking”.

Obviously, I don’t agree. We have the absolute right to privacy in our final days if that is what we wish for. We also have the right to be as public as we are able- and continuing to engage with others until the day we die does not take one jot of our dignity away from us. It’s our life. If talking and sharing make it meaningful to us, then who are we to take that away from someone for their final days? Who the hell are we to tell someone what to do with their last weeks on earth?

And who are we to say that grief for those who we’ve never met, but who we knew of, whose work we loved, who allowed us glimpses into their imaginations, isn’t real?

Iain (M) Banks was an astounding writer. His work wasn’t just absorbing and entertaining. He wrote books you’re sad to finish, characters that you miss terribly after the final page, worlds and places that you feel could be just there, around the corner. Where you knew there were thousands more stories waiting to be told around their corners. Imaginary spaces that felt as alive, as real, as rich as the one we live in.

It’s hard to believe that the mind that created all of that could end. Could truly end- not be backed-up, not live in a substrate or turn out to have been just one small part of someone far greater. Just end. Hard to believe that there isn’t any longer a life at the centre of it all.

I didn’t know Iain Banks. I’m not his friend or partner or family or loved one- not even an acquaintance- and I would never claim a fraction of the grief that they are feeling now.

But he wrote wonderful things. I will miss that.


5 thoughts on “Iain (M) Banks and grief for those we’ve never met.

  1. I did not know about O’Neill’s piece until I read yours. Far from decrying that Banks had a web site where fans could post before he died, I wish I’d known so I could have posted there. What’s better, to let someone (you don’t know personally) know how much you enjoyed their writing while they were alive, or have to wait until they’re dead, or even long dead if O’Neill’s feelings are not to be hurt?

    • Absolutely! I didn’t find out until after his death either, and I agree- would have loved to have left something to let him know how much I appreciated him.

      I think that’s one of the fantastic things about living here and now. Many of us do or will get to know when we are dying, in advance. Because of that, we get to celebrate people’s lives while they’re still here to hear it. That’s not vulgar- it’s brilliant.

  2. No need to worry Aoife, I plan to live forever, and so far I’m executing that plan to perfection.

    On a more serious note, I think it’s ridiculous to believe that the only people who have an effect on our lives are those that we have direct contact with. Books, movies, songs, etc all touch our lives in someway and when someone whose work has spoken to us dies, of course we will be saddened by the news.

  3. I’ve never read anything by him, but I’ve picked up the Wasp Factory a couple of days ago from a list of the top 50 scariest books. Any suggestions?

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